Sure, a thru-hike is basically just a long walk. But to make sure you have the supplies you need when you need them—and for your own safety and the convenience of the people supporting you—a little preparation goes a long way. Most everyone knows you should let someone know where you’re going before a day out in the woods. But when you’re going for longer than a few days—like the Pacific Crest Trial, the Appalachian Trail of the Continental Divide Trail—the number of things to do before you leave grows. Here’s a checklist of things to do before you set off on an adventure.
From gear, to mails drops to resupply items, there are many things to think about before hitting the trail. Getting all of these things in order before you leave will make it less stressful for you on trail and for your “handler” at home. Make a three-ring binder with the following categories: Itinerary, Mail Drops, Gear, Food/Recipes, Contacts and Bounce Box.
This section could be a spreadsheet of your itinerary or a simple calendar with ETA/locations on it. Mine looked like this.
The chances you’ll stick to this initial itinerary are slim—things rarely go exactly as we plan—but it’s a good reference, especially for those at home, to see if you’re on track. Make things easier for our handlers by giving them as much information as you can.
This section should contain: 1) A spreadsheet of your planned mail drops, including addresses and estimated arrival, 2) special instructions like how a drop is to be shipped or if it needs extra time to arrive, 3) a column to record tracking numbers and costs, and 4) which maps and data pages go with each mail drop.
Some people might tell you to have your boxes labeled and sealed before hand. But if your schedule changes, the maps in each box may no longer be correct, and if your diet changes along the way, making changes means unboxing pre-sealed boxes. So I find it better to leave my boxes open until you’re sure they’re ready to ship. And don’t forget to label your mail drops with your ETA! Think about using unique tape or ribbon so your box stands out from the hundreds of others.
When it comes to food, you have multiple options. They include: buying/shipping food ahead of time, buying as you go, shipping food to yourself while on trail, having a handler buy your food as you go and ship it, or having your handler ship your pre-packaged boxes as requested. If you’re buying as you go, or shipping to yourself along the trail, you’re going to need to do some research to know what different towns have for resupply options—they vary greatly from town to town. This means you have to carefully calculate your mileage and dietary needs beforehand. Being a picky eater myself, I wanted the ability to change my drops when needed, so I didn’t prepackage mine. I didn’t want to waste money buying a ton of something only to find out I hated it after a few weeks. As a result my handler—my mom—made up a spreadsheet to check off what I wanted. If a certain item needs to be purchased online or is only available at one location, be sure to note that.
This section should also have a list of recipes, including amounts, in case your handler needs to make supplemental meals for you. I learned the hard way that it’s a good idea to know the size of your meals before you leave. It took my mom and I three mail drops—which equaled more than three weeks of hiking—to get the correct amount of pasta for one of my meals because I didn’t figure it out before I left. To avoid dealing with extra trash on the trail, repackage your food ahead of time. I went as far to repackage individual items and then put everything that made up a day’s worth of food into a single gallon-size Ziploc. When I was on trail, I could grab one and I had a whole day’s worth of food without having to go through a ton of loosely pack food.
Before I left, I put items like my ice axe, crampons, spare socks and other items I thought I might have to replace or might want to switch out into individual bags. Each bag had a number on it. I made an accompanying spreadsheet with what was in each bag and kept a copy on my phone and printed one for my handler. Just like with your specialty foods, it’s not a bad idea to make a list of the items you’re using, including sizes and the manufactures’ contact information and websites on a spreadsheet. Your handler can use this to order you a replacement if you by chance need one.
Make a list of important contacts for your handler. You have them in your phone, but they might not. And that way, if you break or lose your phone, you can at least call your handler and they can relay the needed information to you.
Some hikers use a bounce box. A bounce box is a box of items that you don’t want to carry throughout the whole hike, and will only need some of the time—like extra maps, Q-tips, spare toilet paper—and you need to ship home. Make sure you know what locations along the trail you will and won’t be able to ship items out from, so you know the best spot to ship your bounce box to.
When it comes to going on a big adventure, there are a lot of things one should consider on the personal side of life. Here are some things to think about.
—Living Will—No one wants to think about it, but the unexpected can happen to anyone of us at any time. Writing up a living will is more for your loved ones and is a good way to be sure that if something should happen to you, they will know what your wishes were.
—Power of Attorney—A power of attorney gives anyone you assign the power to make decisions on your behalf if you become mentally incapacitated. Those decisions include private affairs, business, and legal matters.
—Healthcare Proxy—Health care rules say parents and spouses are the only people who are allowed to make decisions and discuss any medical issues if you get hurt. If you want someone else to have this power, a Healthcare Proxy is needed. Proxies can also dictate those who you don’t want to have access.
—Healthcare—You might look into travel or catastrophic insurance. Costs might be better than your current plan and offer things like evacuation coverage in case you need to be flown out of a remote area. Leaving your handler (and having a electronic copy on your phone) of your medical history is a good idea. Here is the one I use.
—Identification Cards—Make copies of your passport, driver’s license, health insurance and other important cards from your wallet. You should keep copies on your phone and leave hard copies with your Handler and in your bounce box.
—Bank accounts—If you’re single or even married you probably have personal bank accounts. If so, only you have access. Either add a second person to your personal account or supply someone you trust with the login and password to your account/bank.
—Passwords—It’s impossible in today’s world not to have a list of passwords for important websites that we access regularly. You might think about giving this list to someone you trust in case you need them to access one of these sites while you’re on the trail.
—Identification Tags—I wear dog tags daily, not because I’m in the military, but so I don’t have to continually transfer my ID from outfit to outfit. Consider purchasing dog tags or an ID bracelet that include your name, blood type, allergies and contact info for next of kin. I also put a copy on my pack in case I get separated from it.
—Bills—Consider prepaying any bills that will come due while you’re away or use your bank’s online bill pay to set up the payments ahead of time. Be aware that if you’re using your credit card, the minimum payment may go up while you’re on the trail. If possible pay more than just the minimum payment to ensure you cover the change.
Know your gear, and know it well. That seems like a no-brainer, but recently I went on an adventure and my new headlamp was in lock mode. I was out for three nights and never figured out how to unlock it. A one-minute phone call to Petzl answered my question and confirmed that even Triple Crown hikers are prone to dumb mistakes. Items like headlamps and cameras today are complex with many features. Think about downloading the PDF of the instruction manual or photographing the important pages, so you can access them in the field.
I switch my shoes out regularly on thru-hikes. If you’re buying them beforehand, know your feet will most likely swell and you might need a larger size. I also replace my insoles and socks. Trim your new insoles and have them in your shoes before you leave—you probably won’t have a great pair of scissors on the trail.
Most likely not all your gear will be new. If you have any down items like a sleeping bag or jacket, consider washing them before you go, to give them new life. Over time, down loses its ability to loft due to dirt and oils, resulting in loss of warmth.
Some of us resist bringing electronics into the wilderness, but for those of us who do carry them, it requires extra steps before we head out and lose cell service or the ability to charge those devices.
—Apps—Make sure you update your phone’s operating system and any apps before you leave. There’s nothing worse than trying to update your phone over a poor connection.
—Maps—Be sure to download the maps you need before you leave. Once offline, accessing them online might be impossible. (GAIA is a good resource for creating offline maps of your adventure.) If there is a map of the trail you’re hiking at the trailhead, snap a photo of it, even if you already have a map. The more information you have the better! (Better yet: Take TWO photos of the map, so when you mistakenly delete one, like I did once, you have a backup.)
—Devices—Charge them before you leave. And if you have time, test how long they will last on one charge. If you’re using a battery pack, know how long it takes to charge and how many charges it will give you. Make sure you pack the correct cables to charge all your devices.
—Insurance—Consider getting insurance for your phone or other devices. Having insurance can expedite replacement time, which means less time waiting in town for that replacement or less time without a needed piece of gear.
After your Thru-hike
Before you leave for your thru-hike, it's very important you have a plan for what comes next. For me, the lack of a goal and direction after my thru-hikes leads to post-trail depression. If you're lucky enough to have a job waiting for you, great. If not, put some thought into what your next steps will be. Where will you live and work? What will your source of income be and how much time and money do you think you'll have left to figure out what's next?
Putting thought into these things will make your life less stressful when you reach the end of your thru-hike. Trust me, the transition back to "real life" isn't always easy. A little planning beforehand will make a huge difference. What you want to do and where you want to be might change during your thru-hike, but any plan is better than no plan.